I'm bipolar and my boyfriend is a "working alcoholic"

When he drinks, it gets weird and ugly.

By Cary Tennis
Published March 29, 2005 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

My boyfriend and I have been living together for two years, through some very difficult financial periods and tremendous emotional instability. He is what he likes to call a "working alcoholic" and I was diagnosed with bipolar I just before I met him, thus neither one of us is fully sane while drunk or off medications, respectively.

We have identified that our worst arguments come after a night of heavy drinking. He used to drink like a fish, and occasionally binges today. Often when we go out together what starts off as a great night ends with a horrendous argument. Usually, we come home and are fine, conversing about typical subjects and current events. But at some point, spiteful feelings start seeping from him, and he begins making snide remarks and insults, usually toward some organization but lately and more often about me. It could be anything from my habits to my heritage. When I get defensive or try to change the subject, he only gets more vicious, until he is saying truly terrible things and I'm screaming and crying and begging him to stop, which only seems to make him more violent. These harsh words never come out when he is sober, and nearly every time he blacks out and doesn't remember a thing in the morning. To complicate things, he's the kind of guy that scoffs at AA and refuses couples therapy.

In the past, I have been unmedicated while a few of these arguments played out, and the stress of the situation overloaded my brain. When this happened, devastating and idiotic decisions were made, such as me cheating on him, or going on a spending spree. I did these things to blot out everything but me and what I wanted. It is an established pattern of my mania to be selfish like that, but only happens when I am off my medications or the dosage is too low. I take extreme care to monitor my condition and keep anything like that from happening again, but the rare drink can disrupt the effectiveness of the medications.

I suspect his mood discrepancies are solely substance-based rather than biological, simply because alcohol enhances any emotion and makes it quicker to flare up. We have agreed that arguing while intoxicated is poisonous to the relationship, yet if I bow out or otherwise prevent the escalation of these arguments, he accuses me of being weak, or not able to handle myself like an adult.

I would like to affirm that this is the absolute worst-case scenario in our relationship. I love every last part of my boyfriend, and only wish that he could see how he acts when he's drunk. I suppose my question is this: Is there anything in this world I can do that will prevent these fights, is there a way to show him how he is acting (or acted), and how can I constructively ask him why he feels the need to verbally abuse me?

Distressed Girlfriend

Dear Distressed Girlfriend,

Do me a favor. Don't constructively ask him why he feels the need to verbally abuse you. Instead, make sure that he doesn't have the chance to verbally abuse you.

Stay away from him if he's been drinking. That might mean staying away from him a lot. But I don't see much choice. If he acts like this when he drinks, and he drinks a lot, then he's going to act like this a lot, and you're going to have to stay away from him a lot.

That doesn't mean you have to break up with him. Perhaps you can live apart and continue the relationship while he addresses his drinking problem. If he doesn't want to join AA, he doesn't have to. He's free to do whatever he wants. But the link between his drinking and these abusive episodes is clear. So if he doesn't try to address his drinking in some way, it seems clear that he doesn't want to solve the problems it's causing. That's not such a great attitude for a boyfriend to have. You would think a conscientious boyfriend, when his girlfriend is diagnosed with a serious mental illness, would put her welfare first, and not drink around her. If he can't control when and how much he drinks, and he doesn't want to join a group like AA, then he should look into techniques such as rational emotive behavioral therapy, Rational Recovery and the like. If he can learn to control his drinking, then your relationship can improve and you can move back in together. If his drinking continues or gets worse, then you at least will have your own secure place to live.

In the meantime, I understand that you are living together and moving out may take some time. So for now, if he's been drinking, refuse to engage him in argument. Take a walk. Get out of the house. Go stay with a girlfriend. Or suggest that if he's been drinking he find somewhere else to sleep it off. It's troubling to hear that he belittles you when you try to bow out of these fights. Perhaps you feel panicked when you defy him, that your defiance of him may threaten your relationship itself. That doesn't matter. You have to break this pattern. Remember this: You don't have to do what he wants.

As to your own drinking: If, as you suggest, even an occasional drink is causing problems with your bipolar disorder, then consider eliminating alcohol altogether. In my opinion, if you have been diagnosed as bipolar, you shouldn't drink at all. The effects of alcohol are too unpredictable. It's easier to just not drink. The drug valproate may help bipolar patients avoid making their situation worse by drinking.

To sum up, I would put the management of your bipolar disorder first, and do whatever it takes, including living apart from your boyfriend and absolutely refusing to engage him in these painful and abusive fights.

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